The Tabata protocol – What is it? Really!

My wife (Linnéa Berglund) has started a new blog about health and fitness and how to become healthier without being fanatical. She has taken help of various people, including a personal trainer at SATS. Linnéa was inspired to write a post about the so-called Tabata training and I could not keep myself from investigating what the ”Tabata protocol” really is.

In 1996 Izumi Tabata et al. published a paper called ”Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO₂max”. If you read abut that paper you often get the impression that high intensity cycling for four minutes (intervals with 20 seconds extreme cycling + 10 seconds of rest, about 8 sets) tabata-anaerobicfour times a week is enough to increase both aerobic and anaerobic capacity significantly and that the results are much better than after low/medium intensity cycling for 60 minutes 5 days a week. That is even the impression you get after reading the abstract from Tabata et al…

But is that really what Tabata and co-workers  found? No, they certainly did not. First of all, their study was on a small study group of 7+7 very weel trained young male students. Moreover, included in the training sessions, and what therefore should be included in the ”Tabata protocol”, were 10 minutes of low intensity warm-up. And during a fifth day this study group cycled with medium pace for 30 minutes, followed by a few interval sets in high intensity. Without this extra 70 minutes a week I doubt that the presented results would persist. I could write more about it, but read here instead, where you can also find a link to the full paper.

Even more problematic (for me) is that, nowadays a Tabata workout seems to include all sort of exercises. But fitness trainers and gurus still quote the original 1996 paper, and that is just annoying. Check this out just as an example.

Tabara et al. showed that, for well trained healthy young men, a mix of extreme high intensity interval cycling and low/medium intensity cycling improve both the anaerobic energy system (the system responsible for high intensity exercise) and aerobic energy system (the system used for endurance exercise), whereas longer low/medium intensity training sessions alone only improve the aerobic system.

I haven’t read what new findings have shown about different short high intensity training sessions, and I do believe that they are very good for most people, but citing the ”Tabara protocol” when you doing ordinary circuit training or whatever is not correct.